Shavar Newkirk (above) is hoping to play in St. Joe's opener this weekend, but nothing is definite. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli isn’t normally a fan of treating regular season games as anything more than exactly that.
If it’s not a tournament, he won’t regard it as one.
Heading into the season’s opening weekend, however, Martelli’s making an exception. The Hawks open at Toledo on Saturday and then play Illinois-Chicago with just a day in between, and having been thrown into a tournament-like situation rest-wise, their skipper wants to make the most of it.
“This is like the NCAA Tournament,” Martelli said. “You play Thursday, play again on Saturday, or you play Friday and you play Sunday. So that’s where we want to be in March, let’s start to prepare for it now.”
Obviously, no team is ready for the big dance before the first game of the year, but the first step to preparing a postseason-ready lineup is ironing out its rotation.
St. Joe’s just wants to get everybody back on the court in full health.
After an injury bug cost the Hawks’ season in 2016-17, that’s the team’s top priority, and right now St. Joe’s is nursing a pair of key injuries to Shavar Newkirk and Charlie Brown.
Newkirk, who averaged 20.3 ppg before tearing his ACL in late December, is day-to-day, or rather hour-to-hour, heading into the opener at Toledo.
Doctors already cleared the senior guard for action, but even so, the recovery process has stretched on. Newkirk truly is questionable for Saturday; it all depends on how he’s feeling that day.
“It’s up in the air. It goes with how I feel. If I feel great on Friday, then I might play on Saturday,” he said before Wednesday’s practice. “Some days it feels really good, other days it feels okay, some days it’s in between.”
“When I was injured, they told me it was going to be a long process, and now that I see it is,” Newkirk added. “Even when I’m cleared, there’s still another step to it.”
For Brown, who averaged 12.8 ppg and shot 38 percent from 3 during his freshman year, recuperating a fractured left wrist hasn’t been as long a process. After an initially daunting diagnosis that could have spanned a couple months, recovery has been moving along quite speedily for the promising sophomore.
Brown, who suffered the injury trying to break his fall after a dunk in practice just three weeks ago, returned to the practice court to get shots up days later with an immobilized off hand, and could now see action for the Hawks as soon as later this month if he’s cleared by doctors on the 20th.
Sophomore wing Charlie Brown (above) will miss at least the first three games of the year with a fractured left wrist that required surgery. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
That would put Brown in line to return for the opening round of the Wooden Classic, out in Anaheim against Washington State on Nov. 23.
“His fitness is not going to be a question,” Martelli said. “They’re working him out, it’s his off hand, but I’m not sitting here telling anybody well, he’ll be cleared Nov. 20. I don’t know that. It’s a work in progress.”
“When he leaves the doctor’s office, if they say you’re good to go, the next place you’ll find him is here [in the gym],” he added later. “He’s not going to Triple-A to get a couple at-bats. He’s coming to Anaheim to play.”
Brown definitely won’t play in the team’s first three games, including November 18 against Princeton, but that’s a much better outcome than the 6-foot-6 wing initially expected.
“The doctor said I could have missed three months. Then he reevaluated it and he said maybe six-to-eight weeks,” Brown said. “When I went to go get my X-ray, he said it wasn’t too bad. The pain was more than what it really was.”
The team is much more prepared than last season to handle life without Brown for a few games, and potentially without Newkirk, if the knee isn’t feeling right on Saturday.
In the case of a Newkirk absence, Martelli confirmed his Saturday starters will be junior guard Lamarr Kimble, junior wing guard Chris Clover, senior wing James Demery, redshirt sophomore forward Pierfrancesco Oliva, and freshman big Anthony Longpré.
Filling in as backup point guard in that situation will be sophomore Nick Robinson, who averaged 5.2 ppg a year ago. Robinson was suddenly forced to play with the ball in his hands last year when Newkirk and then Kimble went down with injuries, and the 6-6 wing as well as the rest of the injury-riddled Hawks had their struggles down the stretch of a 11-20 season.
“Last year when we had to put Nick Robinson in a position to be a backup point guard, we were doing it two days before we played at VCU,” Martelli said. “And they’ll take everything, they’ll take your shoes, your socks, they’ll take everything you walk in with -- legally -- but this year we’ve been able to work him for 30 practices. He’s been a backup point guard. And he’s been able to play with his versatility.”
Martelli also said that freshman big Taylor Funk, a sharpshooting stretch-’4’ from Manheim (Pa.), will play a large role off the bench, and expects to use redshirt senior Jai Williams as his first big man off the bench. Redshirt freshman Lorenzo Edwards, a 6-7 forward, is also in the mix for some minutes though Martelli said he’s working his way back from an injury that cost him a week of practice.
The opener is a rematch of last year’s opener, which saw the Hawks hold off the Rockets 77-76 at Hagan Arena last Nov. 12. Toledo is coming off a 17-17 season but has to replace its top two scorers from a year ago.
Illinois-Chicago went 17-19 (7-11 Horizon) last year with one of the youngest rotations in the country, with five freshmen, a sophomore and three juniors making up the lineup.
When Brown and Newkirk return, look for Clover and Demery to join the reserve rotation, along with Funk, Robinson and Williams.
It’s just not clear when exactly that will be.
“I do have 3 PhDs but I’m not medical in any way,” Martelli said. “Whatever the doctors tell me, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Same with Shavar -- whatever the doctors tell us, that’s what we’re going to do. And other than that, I can’t...do I...Yeah, I wish everybody was healthy and we were playing full tilt. We’re pretty good when that [happens]. That’s not where we are.”